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The Social Responsibility Of Scientists

By John Scales Avery

09 July, 2013

Ethical considerations have traditionally been excluded from scientific discussions. This tradition perhaps has its roots in the desire of the scientific community to avoid the bitter religious controversies which divided Europe following the Reformation. Whatever the historical reason may be, it has certainly become customary to speak of scientific problems in a dehumanized language, as though science had nothing to do with ethics or politics.

The great power of science is derived from an enormous concentration of attention and resources on the understanding of a tiny fragment of nature; but this concentration is at the same time a distortion of values. To be effective, a scientist must believe, at least temporarily, that the problem on which he or she is working is more important than anything else in the world, which is of course untrue. Thus a scientist, while seeing a fragment of reality better than anyone else, becomes blind to the larger whole. For example, when one looks into a microscope, one sees the tiny scene on the slide in tremendous detail, but that is all one sees. The remainder of the universe is blotted out by this concentration of attention.

The system of rewards and punishments in the training of scientists produces researchers who are highly competent when it comes to finding solutions to technical problems, but whose training has by no means encouraged them to think about the ethical or political consequences of their work.

Scientists may, in fact, be tempted to escape from the intractable moral and political difficulties of the world by immersing themselves in their work. Enrico Fermi, (whose research as much as that of any other person made nuclear weapons possible), spoke of science as “soma” - the escapist drug of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Fermi perhaps used his scientific preoccupations as an escape from the worrying political problems of the ’30’s and ’40’s.

The education of a scientist often produces a person with a strong feeling of loyalty to a particular research discipline, but perhaps without sufficient concern for the way in which progress in that discipline is related to the general welfare of humankind. To remedy this lack, it would be very desirable if the education of scientists could include some discussion of ethics, as well as a review of the history of modern science and its impact on society.

The explosive growth of science-driven technology during the last two centuries has changed the world completely; and our social and political institutions have adjusted much too slowly to the change. The great problem of our times is to keep society from being shaken to pieces by the headlong progress of science, the problem of harmonizing our social and political institutions with technological change. Because of the great importance of this problem, it is perhaps legitimate to ask whether anyone today can be considered to be educated without having studied the impact of science on society. Should we not include this topic in the education of both scientists and non-scientists?

Science has given us great power over the forces of nature. If wisely used, this power will contribute greatly to human happiness; if wrongly used, it will result in misery. In the words of the Spanish writer, Ortega y Gasset, “We live at a time when man, lord of all things, is not lord of himself”; or as Arthur Koestler has remarked, “We can control the movements of a spaceship orbiting about a distant planet, but we cannot control the situation in Northern Ireland.”

To remedy this situation, educational reforms are needed. Science and engineering students ought to have some knowledge of the history and social impact of science. They could be given a course on the history of scientific ideas; but in connection with modern historical developments, such as the industrial revolution, the global population explosion, the development of nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, and information technology, some discussion of social impact could be introduced. One might hope to build up in science and engineering students an understanding of the way in which their work is related to the general welfare of humankind. These elements are needed in science education if rapid technological development is to be beneficial rather than harmful.

As an example of the horrors that have been produced by lack of conscience in the application of science and engineering, one can think of drones, which make the illegal killing of men, women and children in distant countries into a sort of computer game played by operators sitting in the comfort of their Nevada bunkers. Now, apparently, there is a move to make killer robots completely free from human control, as can be seen from the following excerpt from a statement by the Campaign to Ban Killer Robots:

“Over the past decade, the expanded use of unmanned armed vehicles has dramatically changed warfare, bringing new humanitarian and legal challenges. Now rapid advances in technology are resulting in efforts to develop fully autonomous weapons. These robotic weapons would be able to choose and fire on targets on their own, without any human intervention. This capability would pose a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and to compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law. “

“Several nations with high-tech militaries, including China, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, are moving toward systems that would give greater combat autonomy to machines. If one or more chooses to deploy fully autonomous weapons, a large step beyond remote-controlled armed drones, others may feel compelled to abandon policies of restraint, leading to a robotic arms race. Agreement is needed now to establish controls on these weapons before investments, technological momentum, and new military doctrine make it difficult to change course.”

“Allowing life or death decisions to be made by machines crosses a fundamental moral line.... The use of fully autonomous weapons would create an accountability gap, as there is no clarity on who would be legally responsible for a robot’s actions: the commander, programmer, manufacturer, or robot itself?... A comprehensive, pre-emptive prohibition on the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons--weapons designed to kill without human intervention--is urgently needed.”

Like doctors, scientists and engineers have life-and-death decisions in their hands. It has been proposed that graduates in science and engineering should take an oath, analogous to that taken by graduating medical students.They should promise never to use their education in the service of war, nor for the production of weapons, nor in any way that might be harmful to society or to the environment.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com






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